What Does Success Look Like?

Last week I read a post by Australian Information Professional Alisa Howlett about how her definition of success has changed over time and sometimes the path is not as well defined as it used to be. Alisa’s post got me thinking about success in another way – from a project perspective.

A successful project solves a problem to the delight of the customer (whether that’s the boss, client or end-user). So, if this is all that is required, why does it seem so difficult to do? What stops us from consistently delivering successful projects? KPMG attempted to uncover the answer to just that question.

In August 2010, KPMG conducted a project management survey with nearly 100 New Zealand organisations. The aim was to learn how businesses were using project management to deliver results.

What they found was that 70% of New Zealand companies had experienced at least one project failure over the last 12 months and that the top four causes of project failure were:

  1. Changes to what was included in the project
  2. People and other resources stretched too thinly
  3. Unrealistic deadlines and
  4. Unclear objectives.

In my view, these four reasons for project failure are derivatives of the same root cause – a lack of clarity around what success looks like. Often this is because we’re so hyped up about the project that all we want to do is get stuck in and figure things out as we go along. As fun as it may be to manage projects in an ad-hoc, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants manner, it is not the most effective way to manage successful projects.

Having a blueprint to follow for every project you undertake alleviates stress, optimises productivity and reduces misunderstanding, confusion and conflict. A map also helps you achieve better results because you know where you are going, and what you need to do to get there.

As I said earlier, projects are simply about solving problems and therefore the first point on the project management map is identify the problem that needs to be solved, why it needs to be solved, and what you hope to achieve by fixing it. In other words, be clear about what success will look like.

For example, at one tertiary library someone had the idea to combine the reference and lending desk into one. A good idea – because according to the head honcho it would broaden the skill base of all staff. According to the person creating the rosters it would make life easier And according to the staff it would mean they’d spend less time on desk shifts. But what was the problem this solution was trying to solve and what did the library hope to achieve by fixing it?

The success of the project will differ depending on the problem you are trying to address. Imagine how different the project would be if the problem was assumed to be poor staff skills rather than the need to move desks to make more space.

So the next time you’re asked to do a project, don’t just jump straight in to getting it done. Take a moment to ask your manager the following:

  • What is the problem you hope to solve?
  • How will you know when this project is finished?
  • How will you know that this project has been successful (rather than just completed)?

Asking these questions will enable you to sift through the Tyranny of the Urgent and focus on the Priority of the Important.  If you don’t ask you won’t find out until it’s too late.

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